x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Is Abu Dhabi's beauty enhanced by my own well-being?

What does my mind make of Abu Dhabi's beauty?

I awoke this morning to find Abu Dhabi transformed. By the break of dawn, the city was beautiful beyond comprehension, the type of beauty that makes no sense, yet arrests all the senses: the type of beauty that makes you forget to breath.

The Corniche was redolent with the fragrance of flowers, with whole battalions of blossom that had appeared, as if from nowhere. Abu Dhabi had become the rallying point for the "million-plant march". The campaign cause? More beauty in the world. In full bloom, the flowers projected their intense nature-defying colours: violent pinks andunearthly purples vied for my attention. The colour contrast with the turquoise Gulf and the powder-blue sky was stark, but Abu Dhabi somehow managed to pull it off.

Even the number of tree species seemed more numerous. According to one source, the UAE is home to 37 species of date palm alone. This verdant heterogeneity was brilliantly balanced. The trees lined the streets in near-perfect symmetry, speaking of the care and attention that had been lavished on them. In keeping with the symmetry motif, many of the trees had been dextrously pruned, and now sported perfectly symmetrical foliage; squares, circles and rhomboids all casting beautiful shadows. Everywhere there was green, the colour of life, an ubiquitous celebration of the city's fecundity.

Elsewhere, a fountain played mother nature's primordial tune, Running Water in B Minor. The piece was accompanied by a virtuoso wind on the date palms. The sea too provided a gentle background track as waves beat a steady rhythm on the shore. Turquoise and gold melded as if in some eternal jewellery-making process. By now, the sun was rising above the horizon, taking a first peek in the Gulf's reflective surface. It liked what it saw, smiled, shone brightly, and warmed the waters.

By now, the sceptic in me had awoken and I was on the lookout for blemishes. I scanned the streets and beaches for litter, but found none. I recalled a day or so earlier I had seen an army of school kids on the beach competitively scouring the sands for anything even remotely resembling garbage. Combine their boisterous efforts with the regular army of cleaners, and that would explain the noticeable absence of litter. My inner sceptic was silenced.

Then, my inner psychologist piped up suggesting that perhaps the change was in me. Perhaps the city had been this beautiful all along, and I had just hitherto failed to truly notice and appreciate it. Maybe I was experiencing the positive, highly-functional equivalent of a psychological disorder. We have no word for this in English - one never hears of someone going sane, and for most of us, health is simply the absence of illness.

The key symptom of my hypothetical "psychological wellness" would have to be hyper-hedonia, a heightened ability to experience pleasurable stimuli. I have also developed what psychologists call a propensity for savouring. That is, dwelling on past and present pleasurable experiences, and pleasurably anticipating future ones.

But if I do have a "psychological wellness", what has caused it? Perhaps it's seasonal: in the same way seasonal affective disorder (SAD) often gives rise to wintertime depression, maybe my psychological wellness is associated with the springtime. I hope not, as it would be great to hold onto these newly discovered appreciative abilities all year round.

Since appreciation is the midwife of thankfulness, I would like to thank the gardeners of Abu Dhabi, the street cleaners, the school kid volunteers and their teachers, the decision-makers and their teams who deem the floral beautification of the city worthwhile, and all of those involved in the broader greenification and afforestation programmes.

This work I know goes back to the late Sheikh Zayed, the first head of state to receive the "Gold Panda Award" - the foremost international accolade for conservation. He is the man who the record-breaking horticulturist Bernard Lavery also described as "the man who tamed the desert".

For me, Abu Dhabi is presently the most beautiful city on the planet. But then again, I might just be benefiting from a serious case of psychological wellness.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of pyschology at Zayed University